Saturday, 15 July 2006

Business of sport

The ancient Greeks perhaps never imagined what sports would be like, almost 3,000 years since they made it an important public institution.

Today of course, sport has become even more of an institution than they could ever have imagined. By the time their modern descendants won soccer’s European Cup 2,780 years since the first games were staged in Ancient Olympus, it has become a billion dollar industry from which hundreds of corporations profit, and most of the world lives and breathes by.

Perhaps no better example of this phenomenon was the just concluded FIFA World Cup, where probably the actual games themselves were only the sideshow to the real competition between Adidas and Nike, Mastercard and the other purveyors of plastic money, as well as other rival corporate pairings for whom the event meant their share prices either going through the roof, or plummeting to the floor.

Nothing in sports today is devoid of monetary value. How much was it worth to the Italians winning the World Cup? Well, 0.5 percent of their GDP, to be exact.

According to their own economic experts, this is how much their economy would be buoyed by the victory. That’s $80.5 billion, for those who can grasp money better than GDP percentages. Yes—that much more in pizza and pasta eaten, Chianti and Lambrusco imbibed, and Gucci and Prada bought from snazzy Milanese boutiques, because of the heady exuberance sweeping the Italian nation when their Azzurri came back with the golden trophy.

And what about FIFA, football’s international governing body, whose politics attract more interest than most nations ever would? Well, they supposedly profited a whopping $1.4 Billion from the month-long enterprise.

No wonder its president, Joseph Blatter, has the temerity to suggest that England ought to have played a more “attacking” kind of football during their matches! His organization has more resources at its disposal than even some of the countries whose teams were represented in the tournament.

Purists will bemoan sports’ loss of its nobility of purpose. And who can blame them? Seeing Portugal’s players dive to the turf time and again, just to ensure that their team secured victory at all costs was probably no different from witnessing Ancient Olympia being bulldozed to the ground, and replaced by a giant shopping mall.

And what to make of NBA superstars and their cribs on MTV? Or the same superstars insisting on staying in five-star hotels while playing in the modern equivalent of the Olympic Games?

Where have all the athletes gone? “Gone to their investment bankers, everyone” would seem to be the appropriately plaintive reply.

Modern sports is no longer simply the noble pursuit of physical excellence that the ancient Greeks wished it to be, and Baron de Coubertin tried in vain to preserve. Winning is now everything, and whatever it takes to gain financially from the undertaking is fair game – whether this means steroids, game fixing or outright crime.

Even as the Italian public celebrate their victory, the clubs with whom their players earn their living are being investigated for rigging the results of matches, all in the pursuit of illegitimate financial gains.

Only the most quixotic of sportsmen now play their game for the sake of it. But even just in our dreams, wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a time when athletes could still compete for the sheer enjoyment of it, when the brand of one’s uniform mattered little, and when conscience rather than corporate sponsors dictated appropriate sporting behavior?

Yes, it would be nice. And yes, it can only now happen in our dreams.
I would like to wish my mother, Carmencita Banzon Batuhan, a belated Happy Birthday!

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, July 15, 2006 (

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